In contemporary American society, identity politics appears to have been increasingly appropriated by the ruling elite to serve their own ends. Building upon this motif, Olufemi O Taiwo’s Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) reveals how “some expressions of identity politics [have been] twisted to rebrand old imperial projects.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the higher education sector. Recent reports in The Chronicle have exposed how colleges have used questionable tactics to present a deceptive portrait of racial diversity on campus. Beneath this thin veneer of diversity, we will often find little or no substantive effort to account for the needs of marginalised groups. The promise of diversity is a cosmetic measure that furthers pre-existing power dynamics.
Rutgers-Newark (RU-N) is one of America’s most avowedly diverse campuses that have attracted a vast number of Muslim students. Situated in New Jersey, which boasts a large population of South Asians, it has been a haven of sorts for many South Asian, Asian and Arab students. Be that as it may, the discrimination faced by one of RU-N’s Pakistani-American professors has exposed the sheer hollowness of this diversity.
Sadia Abbas, author of the DSC Prize-shortlisted novel The Empty Room, is an associate professor of English at the university with fourteen years of service to her credit. She is also one of the few Muslim woman faculty members on campus. Abbas has received numerous awards, including the MLA First Book Prize for her first book At Freedom’s Limit (2015) and has also garnered considerable praise and recognition from students for excellence in teaching. She is one of the first Southeast Asian women to direct the Centre for European Studies at Rutgers-New Brunswick (RU-NB). The discriminatory attitude adopted towards her is yet another glaring testament to the extent to which the notion of diversity has been dressed up as an instrument that serves the powerful segments of society.
The fact of the matter
Abbas’ case involves a prolonged pattern of institutional neglect and can, therefore, not be understood without the benefit of chronology. In 2014, the Pakistani-American professor obtained tenure with distinction despite the fact that two of her colleagues had made an attempt to block the process by raising abstentions. Though Abbas managed to circumvent these hurdles, her academic career at RU-N would be far from smooth-sailing.
Five years ago, Abbas became actively involved in a series of anti-Islamophobia initiatives at RU-N. Her students urged her to run a faculty cluster hire for the Islamic Studies minor. She then started the Islamophobia speakers series and the Islamic Studies Working Group, which elicited a favourable response and raised the academic stature of RU-N. The cluster hire yielded three new faculty in the departments of Africana, Art History, and English. Even though she played a critical role in spearheading these noteworthy projects, Abbas found herself at crosshairs with the administration.
Abbas found herself in an exceedingly hostile work environment. Circumstances took a bleak turn when she was referred to as “a country girl from Karachi” at a public meeting by a colleague – that too in the presence of her chair
“The then dean wasn’t too keen on me as I worked closely with the new chancellor,” Abbas told The Friday Times–NayaDaur over the phone. “The dean wanted to cut me out of the process [of the cluster hire]. Students were appalled as I was the most active Muslim faculty and had worked closely with them. I’d even helped them get a prayer room.”
Abbas was put in charge of the second round of cluster hires, but continued to be cold-shouldered by the dean. “I was told that the dean had refused to work with me as I continued to point out numerous irregularities in the hiring process,” she added.
A fresh set of complications arose when Belinda Edmondson, the chair of the African-American Studies (AAS) department at RU-N, was engaged in the faculty cluster hire, as she also refused to work with Abbas. “When a candidate was finalised for AAS, Edmondson refused to coordinate with me about the timing of the job talk, even though I was the chair of the committee,” the Pakistani-American professor revealed. “I asked the chair of the department to allow the Muslim students to meet the candidate, but the request was denied.”
When Edmondson was about to become the chair of her department, Abbas asked the dean to mediate between them, but that request was ignored. “On her second day as chair, Edmondson filed a grievance against the administration for failing to muzzle me for raising concerns about Islamophobia on campus,” she said. “She also made it clear that she didn’t want to supervise me – a decision that would affect my environmental wellbeing at RU-N.”
Abbas found herself in an exceedingly hostile work environment. Circumstances took a bleak turn when she was referred to as “a country girl from Karachi” at a public meeting by a colleague – that too in the presence of her chair. “Nobody at the meeting raised any objections,” she asserted. “I was simply asked to file a grievance.”
In a separate incident, Abbas was hauled in for professional ethics violation after she wrote an email that mentioned the name of a male colleague who had subjected a female professor to gender harassment. As per the email – a copy of which is available with TFT – Naya Daur – Abbas highlighted the fact that the male colleague claimed that he should have been allowed to “handle the conversation on a grant [instead of the female professor]…because he is a man”. Shocked by these remarks, Abbas informed the dean and was told to file an official complaint. She decided against reporting the incident through the appropriate channel as her health concerns had deteriorated and she didn’t want to endure the bureaucratic rigmarole involved in the complaints procedure.
As her health worsened, Abbas sent emails to Chancellor Nancy Cantor in which she stated that her situation had become “intolerable” and she was trying to leave the university. She also repeatedly requested that she be transferred to RU-NB and asked the chancellor to not stand in the way if this option were proposed. Abbas urged the administration to provide her disability accommodations so she could cope with the toxicity of her work environment. She made these requests to Cantor because she believed the chancellor was “humane” and respected her contributions to the institution.
Her situation at RU-N didn’t change despite the fact that she continued to send emails to the administration. With time, her position as the director of the Center for European Studies (CES) at RU-NB began to provide much-needed respite, though it did little to eradicate the hostilities that besieged her professional environment at the Newark campus.
Chaos at the honours college
Abbas was also told that she lacked the temperament to become chair as she was repeatedly “calling out” irregularities at RU-N. “One of the reasons I have been attacked is for calling out what has been done to the honors college at RU-N,” she wrote in an email to the university’s senior administration, which she shared with TFT-Naya Daur. “I consider the honors college to be a haven for smart students in the seething cauldron of anti-intellectual ressentiment.”
According to the Pakistan-American professor, the honors college at Rutgers was arguably the most diverse one in New Jersey and allowed Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern students an opportunity to excel. In cold denial of the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, the RU-N administration has reportedly weakened the influence of this so-called academic sanctuary and stifled the prospects of numerous students.
“Scholarships that were awarded on the basis of academic merit have been withdrawn for students in the honours college,” the email stated.
Soon after, a residential-only Honours Living Learning Community (HLLC) project was designed that excluded students who hailed from traditional families who ideally wouldn’t want them living on campus. The honours college was billed as an entity that was plagued by a “diversity problem”. Admissions were scaled down to the extent that opportunities for Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern students began to dwindle.
If verified statistics cited in the email are to be believed, there were 91 Asian students enrolled in the honours college in 2018. By 2020, the figure plummeted to 33. Meanwhile, the HLLC had only 13 Asian and Arab students in 2020. At this stage, the HLLC is almost as large as the honours college once was while the latter is merely a shadow of its former self.
“I have been pushed out of teaching for what’s left of the honours college,” Abbas writes in the email. “People are afraid I will keep calling these issues out – and, of course, I need to be kept away from students.”
As per the email, Abbas’ idea for humanities scholarships at the honour college was never implemented, though it has resurfaced as an HLLC project.
Reluctance to retain
A few months ago, the Pakistani-American professor applied for a position at John Hopkins University (JHU) and was selected as a finalist. She had expected to receive a pre-emptive offer of retention from RU-N – a practice that is often used by the administration to prevent faculty from leaving the university. However, Abbas didn’t receive an offer. Letters were submitted by students and alumni to persuade the administration to retain her.
“Abbas is an extraordinary educator and thinker,” stated a letter signed by students and alumni. “Her numerous accolades, both in teaching and research, are a testament to this.” The missive categorically states that Abbas “has been a voice for the minorities on campus”. In addition, it reveals Abbas’ efforts to “continuously provide support to the student body, acting as an advisor for several student organizations”. “As one of the few Muslim female faculty members on campus, she serves as a role model for students,” the letter states. “An attack on her is an attack on us all.”
The letter had almost fifty signatories and prompted a brief response from the senior administration that merely acknowledged the students and alumni’s concern about Abbas’ wellbeing. No attempt was made to assure them that their request would impact the university’s decision to retain their most valued professor. Instead, Jacqueline Mattis, the dean of Arts and Sciences at RU-N, notified the professor in an email sent on March 1, 2022 that the university had decided to forgo a retention offer. The move was justified on the flimsy grounds that the administration felt her “needs and interests” – ostensibly a veiled reference to her requests for disability accommodations – would be better served at another institution.
Mattis’s email, a copy of which was shared with TFT-Naya Daur, also provided Abbas with an alternative. “If you decide that you want to remain at Rutgers, we are happy to arrange for you to continue in your appointment as director of the CES,” the email read. “Under this arrangement, during the latter two years of your appointment (AY 2022-23 and AY 2023-24), [all] your responsibilities (teaching, research, etc) will [be] transferred to RU-NB with your tenure line remaining at RU-N.”
“I have been pushed out of teaching for what’s left of the honours college,” Abbas writes in the email. “People are afraid I will keep calling these issues out – and, of course, I need to be kept away from students”
Abbas wasn’t pleased with this arrangement. In her response to Mattis’s email, she raised concerns about the “discriminatory attitude” adopted towards her that was affecting her health. “The contempt for the Muslim students and community in your non-offer is astonishing,” she stated. “The question is: is the senior leadership behind this? In other words: how far up the chain does the lack of respect for the students and communities go?”
On the same day, Abbas wrote an email to Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway – who had been cc’d in the senior administration’s email correspondence with her – to voice her concerns. She mentioned that her workplace had become “hostile, retaliatory and disrespectful”, which had led her to make requests for disability accommodations.
“I kept [the news of becoming a finalist for the JHU position] to myself as long as I could and thought that, if I got the position, I should just leave,” read the email. “However, students and faculty were dismayed and worried about what would happen if I just left without trying to address some of the issues and, slowly, I came to see their point of view.”
“What the dean and chancellor appear not to understand is that retention isn’t just about money and perks, it’s about institutional climate,” she added. “Does RU-N have no interest in being the kind of place that can meet the ‘needs and interests’ of a scholar, teacher, public intellectual and someone who has done great service to the institution?”
On March 3, Holloway responded to Abbas’ email and assured her that he had “confidence in the leadership at RU-N”. “I understand they have responded to the various concerns you have raised,” he wrote. “In addition, I understand that the Newark leaders have also provided appropriate guidance regarding any concerns you have about discrimination.”
In response to his email, Abbas told Holloway that she had only been asked to file complaints and her fundamental grievances about the “campus climate” remained largely unaddressed. On March 6, she wrote to Mattis as a last-gasp effort to get the senior administration to reconsider the matter. She asked Mattis to offer her a proper retention package and outlined the fact that she had received a similar offer in the past. Abbas wrote: “If you choose not to extend one and choose not to reconsider, could you explain your reasons for not doing so? I must admit I am perplexed”.
Apart from that, the Pakistani-American professor reiterated the concerns that she had raised over time about her unsuitable work environment, which have fallen on deaf ears. Abbas also requested that her teaching and work at CES be aligned with [RU-NB] in keeping with the health situation triggered by her work environment. “[This will] provide respite from the work environment as well as allow me to maximize my efforts to…recruit students and…apply for large grants for the CES,” she wrote in the email.
The professor received a rather evasive response from Mattis a week later. “The arrangement to allow you to conduct [all] your teaching and service in RU-NB for the next two academic years is a joint effort to support you,” Mattis stated in her email. “Transferring your tenure line to [New Brunswick] is not an option that is available.”
The dean reiterated that Abbas should report all concerns about the work environment to the union and the Office of Employment Equity.
The university’s decision to forgo Abbas’ offer was taken well before she had received a final offer from JHU. It is equally important to consider that another faculty member from Abbas’ department received a pre-emptive offer of retention around the same time that her retention package was forgone. This has raised concerns about the basis for the administration’s reluctance to retain her. In the broader context, these developments have taken place against the backdrop of a scandal involving fraudulent practices to boost the rankings of RU-N’s Business School.
Many students and alumni believe that the decision stands in cold defiance of Abbas’ contributions towards facilitating equitable hiring processes and the well-being of students at RU-N.
“It is clear, at least to me and some of the alumni that co-authored the letter, that student input, and therefore teaching record, had little impact on their decision,” said Soelli Smith, a teaching assistant and PhD candidate at RU-N.
“I know Professor Abbas is more than qualified for this role,” said Najma Hassan, another alumnus. “It doesn’t make sense to me as to why a school that prides itself on diversity [has refused] to offer a letter of retention to one of the greatest diverse thinkers on our campus.”
Hassan recalled how Abbas made her undergraduate career at RU-N “remarkable”. “She constantly challenged us to think outside the box,” she said. “She came up with an amazing curriculum for her students and made us eager to attend classes.”
Hassan is of the view it isn’t too late to offer Professor Abbas a letter of retention. She believes the decision reflects how RU-N has failed to account for the needs of students. “[This] could be very detrimental to the growth of our campus community as a whole,” she argued. Hassan added: “Moving forward, I think there should be a broader push towards making marginalized students feel more represented. Focus groups or town halls [should be organized] to ask the students what they’d like to see on campus and who they’d like to see teaching the classes they take”.
Sarah Alaeddin, another alumnus, told TFT-Naya Daur that the administration “should retroactively offer a retention letter and issue a public apology for its acts of disrespect towards Abbas”. She added that a concerted effort should be made to implement some of the changes that Abbas has fought so hard for, including offering support and funding to the honours college.
“Abbas has been serving the RU-N campus and its students for years, and what she received in return was an act of blatant disrespect,” Alaeddin asserts. “This shows that they don’t care for their own students considering that they are driving away a faculty member who openly advocates for students’ best interests. At this point, they only care about reputation. Everyone must know that RU-N is the most diverse campus in the country; never mind how those diverse populations are treated.”
Matter of discretion
Faculty members have also expressed reservations over the reluctance to grant a pre-emptive offer to Abbas. Laura Lomas, Abbas’ colleague, told TFT-Naya Daur the lack of support for the professor has significantly demoralized faculty and made them feel as if they aren’t being heard by the administration.
“The university administration offers retention offers according to its discretion, and not uniformly, nor always based on academic merit or the competing institution,” she said. “The administration favors certain faculty members over others depending on the faculty member’s standing with influential figures in the administration.”
Letter of support
On May 20, 2022, noted academics, writers, artists and global activists sent a letter in support of Abbas to Chancellor Cantor. The missive, which has been signed by Ayad Akhtar, Khaled Mattawa, Shahzia Sikander, Shahzad Bashir, among others, acknowledges her novel contributions to literature, art, history, and political theory, and archaeology.
“In a polarised American society, where opposing sides are far too clearly defined and unable to communicate with each other apart from through a set of stereotypes, Dr Abbas is able to approach them both in sophisticated and critical ways, if only in order to breach their boundaries,” the letter read. “Dr Abbas plays an extraordinarily important role both in thinking about Muslim futures in America and working with Muslim students to have them become articulate thinkers, critics, and good citizens in their own right.”
The letter decries the “pattern of denial and discouragement” with which Abbas’ efforts to quell disparities of gender, race, and religion among the faculty, students, and curriculum have been met.
“We were astonished to learn that Dr Abbas was even formally written to by the administration with the suggestion she might be better off elsewhere,” the missive states. “Such a message, which is essentially a declaration of discouragement and even desire for termination, should have been a letter of support and encouragement, with an explicit and persuasive effort to affirm her intellectual work, and her contributions and future possibilities at Rutgers.”
Through this note, the administration has been requested to recognize Abbas’ significance as “one of the premier Muslim and Pakistan women faculty” at RU-N instead of driving her out.
Points of ‘misinformation’
Soon after, Cantor responded to the signatories of the letter in an email. “We hear and appreciate your efforts to support Professor Abbas as a valued colleague,” states the email, a copy of which is available with TFT-Naya Daur. “As we read your concerns, it became clear that there are points of misinformation that are important for us to address.”
The chancellor recognised Abbas’ contributions as “an outstanding scholar who has made invaluable contributions to her field”, but denied that the university had failed to support her. The email states: “Among the most potent signals of our authentic support for Professor Abbas and for the value of [her] work is the fact that the funding as well as the instrumental resources (for example, space, faculty course releases, research leaves) that made these initiatives possible were provided by the [chancellor] and by the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at RU-N. Our support for these initiatives and for others such as the earlier Post-Colonial Speaker Series, and for Professor Abbas’s leadership and involvement in them has not wavered. We have continued to fund and provide other instrumental support to ensure that these programs will thrive. Even more, we have expanded our commitments by working actively with faculty to seed new initiatives in Islamic studies.”
Cantor’s email states that no attempt has been made to drive out Abbas. “Not only have we consistently supported initiatives that Professor Abbas has led, or in which she has been integrally involved, but we have extended support and courtesies to her individually,” the email stated. “Even in this past year, when Prof. Abbas requested to have the opportunity to lead a center on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus, we supported that request without reservation. When she asked to teach courses at Rutgers-New Brunswick we provided immediate and unreserved support for this request. We also worked with colleagues in New Brunswick to make that a reality.”
Though the chancellor claims that she was “unaware” of any attempts to drive out Abbas, it is difficult to overlook the fact that she was cc’d in Mattis’ initial email where she categorically told the Pakistani-American professor that her needs would be better served elsewhere. Interestingly, Mattis is a signatory to the email that Cantor sent to the academics, writers and activists who voiced their support for Abbas.
A detailed questionnaire was sent to Chancellor Cantor, Dean Mattis and Holloway on June 4 with a view to conduct an independent inquiry on the nature of Abbas’ case. A clarification was sought on various concerns, including the reasons for administration’s unwillingness to make a pre-emptive offer of retention, the reasons for Edmondson’s reluctance to supervise Abbas and the basis for a professional ethics violation that she was put through. The president was also asked whether the manner in which the dean and chancellor have handled the matter was justified and if the decision to forgo the offer of retention runs contrary to his avowed mission to promote diversity on campus. Holloway, Mattis and Cantor did not respond to the emails.
Moving forward, the higher education sector in the US must work towards fostering diversity in its truest sense instead of perceiving it as an exploitative tool to preserve the interests of the powerful. RU-N is considered a model campus in terms of inclusion and diversity. If this is the future of diversity at university campuses, the prospects of American education are indeed bleak.